The biggest knock of all against Julia Gillard has not been poor policy-making or a lack of overall intelligence. It has been that handy catch-all phrase of intangibles called “poor political judgement”. Stepping back and taking a cold-eyed look at the Labor Government of the last five years, you could certainly disagree ideologically with their policy directions, but in terms of actually following the directions they have laid out, such as repeal of WorkChoices, a price on carbon, maternity leave, taxing mining profits and means testing middle class welfare, then Rudd was somewhat effective and Gillard very effective. Some might say Gillard faced more difficult circumstances as well, but in fact since July 2011 she has had a far friendlier Senate than Rudd had, which has been the key.
But Julia Gillard and the factional leaders’ political judgement by any measure has been spectacularly poor. In overthrowing the elected Prime Minister back in June 2010 so quickly, coolly and efficiently, they thought they were displaying mastery of the game, when in fact they were displaying their mastery of in-house union-style politics where the broader constituency matters so little as to be practically irrelevant, while deeply misunderstanding public psychology. Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership began with a fatal flaw, the wound deepened by another poor decision to go straight to an election and her fate sealed by failing to win that election and thus never achieving legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Despite her policy successes, Julia Gillard and those around her have kept reminding us of that poor political judgement, in case any of us forgot. Repeated own goals such as the unnecessary Rudd snub at the December Conference, the again unnecessary reneging on the pokies deal with Wilkie without even trying a vote in the House, the Australia Day shenanigans and the bad performance on Four Corners. Everything the P.M. or her advisors do to make her seem in charge simply reinforces the impression that she is not and never has been.
The current powerbrokers in the Labor Party may be very intelligent men and women with many skills but they are awful public politicians. The reasons for this are the obvious ones. While Liberal politicians from diverse backgrounds like Jackie Kelly and Danna Vale may have had limited talents overall, they were excellent natural politicians that could relate to and understand their constituents, and thus kept winning their former Labor heartland seats easily.
As Rodney Cavalier and a number of others have noted, the union conveyor belt that is the Labor Caucus in the 21st Century is destroying the Party’s relevance. Knowing how to wrangle the numbers in any number of unions with five letter acronyms does not make you a good Federal or State politician. To be a good public politician you have to be able to appeal to the great unwashed, that is, us. And yes, Bob Hawke was the exception that proves the rule.
And I mean THE exception. Apart from him Labor’s only wins from Opposition since WWII have come from leaders without a union background, people who had risen through the ranks because they were natural politicians who could motivate the public to vote for them, and not just effective organisers who knew how to trade numbers to get ahead.
The longer the Labor Party misunderstands this critical difference between being a good powerbroker and being a good politician, the more likely they are to face an existential crisis, if they aren’t already facing it now. Whatever happens in Canberra in the next few weeks, they will be out of power in the four biggest states and almost certainly out of power federally within 18 months.
Some might say that all this shows is that the public need to look at the real policy achievements and learn how the Westminster system works rather than getting caught up in the personalities and easy slogans. You might as well ask the tides to stop.
The Labor Party must take that time in Opposition to break the union grip on preselection once and for all, provide good local politicians with compelling reasons to join their party (no mean feat I’ll admit) and then, most importantly of all, endorse them for winnable seats.
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